Now that the budget bills for fiscal 2006 have cleared both houses of the National Diet, one of the focal issues for the remainder of the current session will be how to reconcile conflicting views between the ruling and opposition parties over legislation on plebiscites, a process indispensable for amending the Constitution.

The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito hopes to have a plebiscite law enacted before the Diet session adjourns. But that prospect has become cloudy following the resignation Friday of Democratic Party of Japan chief Seiji Maehara, a proponent of constitutional revision, and other DPJ leaders.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the supreme statute. In April last year, the constitution councils of both the Upper and Lower houses submitted reports on the need for constitutional amendments, completing five years of deliberations.

Although a year has passed, the two chambers have yet to fall into step. The Lower House has set up a special committee to deliberate a plebiscite bill; the Upper House has not. So, even if the Lower House passes the bill, there is no assurance the Upper House will follow suit.

Taro Nakayama, former foreign minister who headed the Lower House constitution council, stated before a plenary session that a majority within his council favored amending the Constitution to “rectify the gap between what the supreme statute says and the real world,” and to respond to changes on the domestic and international scenes.

According to Nakayama, some council members pointed out that citizens’ rights under the Constitution have been restricted for 60 years because the Diet has failed to write detailed procedures for implementing Article 96, which provides for constitutional amendments.

In the Sept. 11 general election, the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito won more than two-thirds of the Lower House seats needed to initiate a constitutional amendment process, but they hold only a slim majority in the Upper House.

Here are some major points of contention between the ruling coalition and opposition groups on the plebiscite bill:

Restrictions on news reporting. The ruling coalition insisted on prohibiting falsified reports and the publication of voting projections, while the DPJ opposed such prohibitions as running counter to press freedom. The conflict was resolved when the governing parties softened their stand and agreed to “freedom of reporting in principle.”

Voting method. Opinions are split over whether a vote on a new constitution should be allowed once on a single package, or taken separately on each amended article. Yukio Edano, head of the DPJ constitution council, opposes a package vote because, he says, it won’t clear the way for amendments.

Age qualification. Views sharply differ between the DPJ, which proposes that anybody over 18 should be eligible to vote on a constitutional amendment, and the LDP, which insists on a minimum age of 20 in line with the existing Public Offices Election Law. Although the LDP’s position appears more reasonable, lowering the age to 18 may be worth considering if it’s likely to encourage greater participation in politics by the younger generation.

Definition of a majority. Article 96 says any proposed amendment requires majority approval in a plebiscite. The LDP interprets majority as more than half of the valid votes cast — discounting invalid votes — while the DPJ sticks to a majority of all votes cast.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its founding last fall, the LDP announced a new draft constitution that called for retaining Paragraph 1 of Article 9, which renounces war, while amending Paragraph 2, which bans possession of war-making potential, to justify the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

In addition, the LDP draft contains provisions related to rights to privacy, good environment and knowledge. Another feature would lower the barrier to amending the Constitution by requiring a simple majority in both chambers to initiate the amendment process, compared with a two-thirds majority needed at present.

New Komeito, meanwhile, is considering adding new provisions to the existing Constitution. The minority coalition group favors retaining both Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 9 and does not acknowledge the right of collective self-defense. The focal point of intraparty contention appears to be how much recognition to give to the SDF and the extent to which they should be allowed to contribute to international missions.

Chairman Akihiro Ota of the New Komeito constitutional council appears to support the existing requirement that any amendment must be initiated by a two-thirds majority in both houses.

Under the leadership of pro-amendment leader Seiji Maehara, the DPJ came up with its own proposal last fall that called for deleting Paragraph 2 of Article 9, setting forth provisions for the right of self-defense, and agreeing to the right of collective self-defense within limits. The No. 1 opposition group plans to finalize its draft amendment in time for the scheduled election of its leader in September.

Within the DPJ, however, there remains strong opposition to amending the supreme statute, especially among those who belonged to the former Japan Socialist Party. An intraparty struggle is mounting below the surface. The chaos within the DPJ is largely to blame for the slow progress the Lower House has made in deliberating the plebiscite law.

In March, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party held their first top-level meeting in 28 years, and agreed to oppose any constitutional amendment and a plebiscite bill. At its national convention in February, the SDP declared that the SDF were “in a state of violating the Constitution.”

In 1975, the then Japan Socialist Party, the predecessor of the SDP, had shifted to a more realistic policy and accepted the SDF as constitutional. The latest SDP declaration, though, appears to represent a return to the old line.

All recent news-media opinion polls show that most citizens favor amending the Constitution. The Upper House has so far failed to create a new committee to deliberate the national plebiscite bill because DPJ Upper House members are dominated by those hailing from labor unions or the former Socialist Party, which either opposed or were not enthusiastic about making amendments.

The only way for the DPJ to be accepted as a force capable of taking the reins of government is to strive toward capturing a legislative majority while giving due respect to public opinion.

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